NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” Exhibit Puts Ocean Trash on Display in Alaska

Last summer, we heard from the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy as he accompanied other scientists, artists, and educators on the Gyre Expedition, a 500-mile-long collaborative research cruise around the Gulf of Alaska. Along the way, Murphy and the scientists would stop periodically to survey and collect marine debris that had washed on shore.

Meanwhile, the artists with them were observing the same trash through a creative lens. They were taking photos and collecting bits of it to incorporate into the pieces now on exhibit in Gyre: The Plastic Ocean at the Anchorage Museum. This hands-on exhibit opened February 7 and will be available at the Anchorage Museum through September 6, 2014. The Gyre project aims to bring perspective to the global marine debris problem through art and science.

NOAA Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace kicked-off the exhibit’s opening weekend symposium by introducing the topic of marine debris—its origins, composition, and impacts. The symposium, coordinated by Murphy, provided a chance for attendees to participate with scientists, removal experts, and artists in an interactive session exploring the issue of marine debris. They were able to discuss marine debris’ origin and impacts, as well as the cleanup and communication efforts, and how science and art can help us in understanding, capturing, and communicating the issue.

Learn more about our involvement with the Gyre project and if you can’t make it to Anchorage, take a look at some of the incredible art installations created from marine debris now on exhibit.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum's "Gyre: The Plastic Ocean" exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales.

A quote by Marine Debris Program Director Nancy Wallace displayed in the Anchorage Museum’s “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” exhibit explains how debris impacts large marine animals such as gray whales. (NOAA)


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Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA

Man holding a trash bag on a beach and pointing to a heart-shaped piece of wood enscribed with "Love."

NOAA’s Nir Barnea, Marine Debris West Coast Regional Coordinator, finds a bit of marine debris “love” at the 2007 International Coastal Cleanup held in Seattle, Wash. (NOAA)

At NOAA, we put our heart into our work every day of the year—whether we’re cleaning up marine debris from beaches or modeling the (at times) curiously shaped paths of spilled oil.

But on some days, we take this a little more literally than others. As you can see in this video, our oceanographers have used the NOAA oil spill forecast model GNOME to show what it looks like when they put their heart into their work for Valentine’s Day.

Perhaps this hypothetical scenario might be what we should expect if a shipment of candy hearts were to spill off the coast of Washington?

Happy Valentine’s Day from NOAA!


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Using the Almighty Dollar, NOAA Marine Debris Program Empowers Groups to Keep Coasts Clean

The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects that remove old fishing gear and other debris from beaches and coastal waters.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects that remove old fishing gear and other debris from beaches and coastal waters. (NOAA)

The U.S. has a long and winding shoreline—95,471 miles of it—extending into bays, inlets, and the Great Lakes. This massive scale creates a challenge just as big to keep trash and other debris off our shores and out of our coastal waters.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program uses the power of funding to put much-needed dollars into the hands of worthy community groups, non-governmental organizations, tribes, local government agencies, and universities working to address marine debris in their areas.

In addition to funding projects like these, the NOAA Marine Debris Program coordinates, strengthens, and promotes marine debris activities within NOAA and among its partners and the public through regional coordination, research, outreach, and education.

Get It Out

Earlier this year, we awarded $967,000 to 11 removal projects ranging from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Some focus on abandoned vessels and fishing gear, while other projects aim to sweep plastics, Styrofoam, and other consumer debris from beaches and sea turtle nesting sites.

One innovative project in North Carolina establishes a pilot program to encourage commercial fishers to collect derelict crab pots from surrounding waters so they can be transformed into artificial reefs, creating habitat for oysters.

The NOAA Marine Debris Blog reports that “through this program, NOAA has funded 76 marine debris removal projects and removed more than 3,800 metric tons of marine debris from our oceans and Great Lakes since 2006.”

Keep It Out

Yet the easiest way to clean up marine debris is to keep it from getting into the water in the first place. This is why the NOAA Marine Debris Program also awards grants for outreach and education efforts to prevent marine debris. In 2013, we provided $949,512 to eight groups across the country to develop hands-on education materials and activities, curricula, workshops, and museum displays, as well to three scientific organizations to research the interactions of microplastics with the marine environment.

The Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean received one of these education grants, which they will use to support their traveling dockside education programs featuring “Hector the Collector.” Hector is a small, yellow remotely operated vehicle that dives in harbors searching for and gathering marine debris with its headlights, sonar, camera, and gripper claw. In addition to educational activities surrounding Hector, the Rozalia Project organizes beach cleanups, with aspirations of picking up 500,000 pieces of debris this year.

The projects funded through the NOAA Marine Debris Program typically last between one and two years but produce lasting benefits to the environment, fish and wildlife, and communities they serve.

To learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts to remove and prevent marine debris, head to marinedebris.noaa.gov.


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No Solid Mass of Debris from Japan in the Pacific Ocean

Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012.

There is no solid island of debris from Japan heading to the United States. Here is an example of confirmed Japan tsunami marine debris arriving in the U.S.: a 4-by-4-foot plastic bin spotted off the eastern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, on September 18, 2012. The barnacles on its bottom are a common open-water species. (Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory)

We’ve heard a concern from some of you that there’s an island of debris in the Pacific Ocean coming from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. For those of you who may be new to this topic, we’d like to address those concerns.

Here’s the bottom line: There is no solid mass of debris from Japan heading to the United States.

At this point, nearly three years after the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, whatever debris remains floating is very spread out. It is spread out so much that you could fly a plane over the Pacific Ocean and not see any debris since it is spread over a huge area, and most of the debris is small, hard-to-see objects.

We have some helpful resources for you, if you’re interested in learning more.

While there likely is some debris still floating at sea, the North Pacific is an enormous area, and it’s hard to tell exactly where the debris is or how much is left. A significant amount of debris has already arrived on U.S. and Canadian shores, and it will likely continue arriving in the same scattered way over the next several years. As we get further into the fall and winter storm season, NOAA and partners are expecting to see more debris coming ashore in North America, including tsunami debris mixed in with the “normal” marine debris that we see every year.

NOAA has modeled the debris’ movement, and the model shows the overall spread of all simulated debris and an area where there may be a higher concentration of lower floating debris (such as wood) in one part of the Pacific. However, that doesn’t mean it’s in a mass, and it doesn’t tell us how much is there, it just shows there may be more debris there than in other areas. Observations of the area with satellites have not shown any debris.

Even though there’s no mass, addressing this debris is very important. NOAA has worked with partners in the states to monitor the debris, form response plans, and try to mitigate any impacts. We’ll continue that work as long as necessary. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have. Feel free to email us at MarineDebris.Web@noaa.gov.


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Sandy, One Year Later: Where Are We Now?

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012.

Boats and other debris were out of place in Brigantine, N.J., Oct. 30, 2012, after Sandy made landfall on the southern New Jersey coastline Oct. 29, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy raced toward the East Coast. Although the hurricane became a post-tropical cyclone before making landfall, it still caused extensive damage. Its forceful winds and flooding swept waves of oil, hazardous chemicals, and debris into the waters along New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

Both before and after Sandy hit, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) was bracing for the repercussions of this massive storm. In the year since, we have been working with federal, state, and local agencies to reduce the environmental impacts, restore coastal habitats, and improve the tools needed to prepare for the next disaster.

Restoring Tidal Wetlands in New Jersey

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery's diesel spill as a result of the storm.

Oil mixed with vegetation and organic debris in the tidal marshes affected by the Motiva refinery’s diesel spill as a result of the storm. (NOAA)

As water levels receded, the U.S. Coast Guard began receiving reports of pollution in the areas of coastal New Jersey and New York. Petroleum products, biodiesel, and other chemicals were leaking into the waters from pollution sources such as damaged coastal industries, ruptured petroleum storage tanks, and sunken and stranded vessels. The area of Arthur Kill, a waterway that borders New York and New Jersey, was hit particularly hard. One such spill occurred when a tank holding diesel broke open at the Motiva refinery in Sewaren, N.J., releasing an estimated 336,000 gallons of diesel into several creeks.

The week following Sandy, our Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program (DARRP) staff ventured into storm-ravaged areas to gather data on impacts to coastal habitats and other natural resources, including those potentially affected by the Motiva oil spill. NOAA, along with representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Motiva, surveyed affected sites both by land and by boat and coordinated with these groups to determine whether to pursue a natural resource damage assessment and implement environmental restoration.

Early in this process, the trustees, NOAA and New Jersey, and Motiva agreed to focus on restoration, rather than conducting new studies and debating legal issues. This meant using observations from the surveys, past damage assessments in the area, and previous scientific studies to determine the amount of restoration required to offset the resulting injuries to natural resources.  As a result, NOAA and New Jersey reached consensus on a cooperative settlement in less than 6 months with the Motiva refinery in Sewaren for the release of oil during the storm. This successful agreement will provide funds to restore and monitor recovery of tidal wetlands in the Arthur Kill watershed, which will begin before the end of 2013.

Identifying Remaining Debris Along the Coasts

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment.

Drums and other debris were washed away into the ocean and surrounding waters following Sandy and in some cases continue to be a threat to safety and the environment. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Even when drums, tanks, and other debris swept into the waters after a storm are free of oil and chemicals, they can still pose a threat to navigation, commercial and recreational fishing grounds, and sensitive habitats. This was a considerable problem after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Sandy was no exception in 2012.

In the months following this storm, the NOAA Marine Debris Program coordinated debris response activities and initial assessments with agencies in impacted states. Using aerial, underwater, and shoreline surveys, today we continue working with federal and state agencies to identify the amount and location of remaining debris that Sandy littered up and down Mid-Atlantic coastal waters.

In addition, we are using a computer model we developed with NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey after Hurricane Katrina to predict probabilities of finding debris generated by Sandy in the nearshore waters of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. These and other analyses, along with support from the rest of the Marine Debris Program and OR&R’s Atlantic ERMA mapping tool, will inform how states prioritize cleanup efforts.

Due to the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, the Marine Debris Program received $4.75 million for activities related to finding and clearing debris from Sandy.  Through the end of 2013 and into 2014, we will continue our work identifying priority items for removal and supporting limited removal efforts. The program is also using what we learned from Sandy to establish long-term debris recovery plans for future storms.

Adapting to a Changing Shoreline

In addition to damaging buildings, roller coasters, and vessels, Sandy’s strong winds and waves caused considerable change to shorelines on the East Coast. The areas most affected were metropolitan New York, northern Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

As a result, OR&R’s Emergency Response Division received funding through the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 to update our Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps for northeast states. These updated maps will reflect the shoreline changes caused by the storm but will be developed with a broad range of potential disasters in mind.

Additionally, they will expand the coastal information offered to better inform planning and response efforts for the next disaster. Such information may include flood inundation and storm surge areas, environmental monitoring stations, tide stations, and offshore renewable energy sites. Long Island Sound is first on our list for updates, but the Hudson River, Chesapeake Bay, and affected shorelines from South Carolina north to Maine eventually will follow suit.

While it has already been a year since Sandy left its mark on the U.S., the work of recovery and rebuilding is not yet complete. You can read more about these efforts in support of healing our coasts and communities on NOAA’s Ocean Service website.


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Are We Prepared to Communicate Well During the Next Disaster?

Editor’s Note: September is National Preparedness Month. It is a time to prepare yourself and those in your care for emergencies and disasters of all kinds. NOAA and our partners are making sure that we are prepared in every regard for whenever the next disaster strikes. To learn more about how you can be prepared for all types of emergencies, visit www.ready.gov.

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Kate Clark.

Ever had a crisis? Did you have a plan for getting people the information they needed during that crisis? Chances are you answered first yes, then no. It is not often we are able to anticipate what our next crisis or disaster will be, but that doesn’t mean we should be caught off guard (however unusual the event).

The Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) is no stranger to dealing with crisis. Whether it’s an oil spill, influx of marine debris, or chemical release, we plan and prepare to deal with environmental disasters as a part of our work each day.

As environmental disasters continue to happen and media coverage becomes more instantaneous, we must also be prepared to communicate with the public about these disasters in a way that is factual, timely, and helpful.

On September 19, 2013, I was able to attend a crisis communications workshop sponsored by the Ad Council. It featured three esteemed and accomplished communication experts: Dee Dee Myers, Managing Director of the Glover Park Group and former White House Press Secretary; Camille Johnston, Vice President, Corporate Affairs for Siemens Corporation and former spokesperson for First Lady Michelle Obama; and Morgan Binswanger, Executive Vice President, Government Relations and External Affairs for the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

As OR&R works to improve our crisis communication strategy and strengthen our rapport with stakeholders, I thought these five pieces of advice from the seminar would help inform our efforts:

  1. Outreach. Using the time leading up to a crisis to educate the public, stakeholders, and the press about your mission can save a lot of valuable time during the crisis. This will allow for clearer and more germane dialogue when a crisis does occur.
  2. Plan ahead. What is the most likely crisis scenario? Who will speak for the organization? How we will disseminate information?
  3. Time is of the essence. Information is available through social media within seconds of an event occurring. This leaves a small window of time to react and respond.
  4. Be transparent. In today’s day and age, almost everything becomes public, so transparency and honesty in the very early stages are crucial to maintaining trust and credibility.
  5. Humility goes a long way. It’s OK to say, “We don’t know, but we are working very hard to get an answer.”

OR&R and the whole NOAA family is constantly learning and adapting to the changing pace of communications in today’s information landscape. Let us know how you think we’re doing. Where would you look for information from NOAA during a disaster, such as a hurricane or oil spill? This blog? Facebook or Twitter? NOAA.gov? Somewhere else?

We are thankful to the Ad Council for sponsoring this seminar and providing great reminders as we continually work to improve our dialogue with the people we work for—the U.S. public.

Kate Clark.Kate Clark is a regional resource coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division. She has responded to and conducted damage assessment for numerous environmental pollution events for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, managed NOAA’s Arctic policy portfolio, and served as a senior analyst to the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling.


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Apply for a NOAA Marine Debris Removal Grant

This is a post by Asma Mahdi, Outreach and Communications Specialist for the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

Divers work to remove tires from Osborne Reef in Broward County, Florida.

Broward County tire removal efforts from Osborne Reef in Florida. (Broward County)

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, in cooperation with the NOAA Restoration Center, has opened a fiscal year 2014 federal funding opportunity for marine debris removal. This opportunity paves the way for communities to implement marine debris removal projects that create long-term ecological improvements for coastal habitat, waterways and wildlife, including migratory fish.

Past projects have removed various types of debris from all over the country, including tires from Osborne Reef in Florida, wood pilings at Point Molate in California, and derelict lobster traps in Maine. Projects have restored critical habitat, such as coral reefs, raised community awareness about the debris problem, and even helped open up public beach access to previously closed areas.

From the grant application description:

A principal objective of the NOAA Marine Debris Program is to provide federal financial and technical assistance to grass-roots, community-based activities that improve living marine resource habitats through the removal of marine debris and promote stewardship and a conservation ethic for NOAA trust resources.

In order to track project success, funded projects will need to be able to report the total amount of debris removed (metric tons), total area or extent cleaned or restored (acres and/or miles), types of debris encountered, and volunteer hours involved.

The deadline for applications is November 1, 2013. Learn more and apply at http://go.usa.gov/jJDB.

UPDATE 9/6/2013: You can check out the 11 community projects that have been awarded nearly $1 million for marine debris removal this year.


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Join the International Coastal Cleanup and Clean up a Beach Near You

Plastic bottle caps picked up from a beach on Midway Atoll.

Help pick up marine debris where you live on September 21 with the International Coastal Cleanup. Marine debris is a global problem, even for places like the middle of the U.S. or a remote Pacific island. The plastic bottle caps shown here were collected from Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands by NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. (NOAA)

Worried about the amount of trash on our coasts? Do gyres of bobbing plastic whirl through your head each night? Help wipe these worries from your mind and the beach by joining the International Coastal Cleanup on September 21, 2013.

With more than 550,000 volunteers scouring beaches, rivers, and lakes last year, this event is the biggest one-day cleanup of marine debris in the world. In the past, volunteers have turned up everything from bottle caps and plastic bags to toilet seats and cyborg sea-kitties. But each year cigarette butts take home the prize for most common item of debris found on the beach, with 2,117,931 of these toxic pieces of plastic turning up during the 2012 global cleanup alone.

To volunteer at a location near you, visit Ocean Conservancy online. The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the annual event, and last year NOAA volunteers cleaned up more than 2.8 tons (nearly 5,700 pounds) of debris from waterways and beaches in DC, Seattle, and Oahu.

Even if you can’t make it to your nearest waterway on September 21, you can still help reduce how much trash makes it to the ocean by planning your own beach cleanup and considering these 10 suggestions from Ocean Conservancy:

10 things you can do for trash free seas


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Embarking on the GYRE Expedition: A Scientific and Artistic Study of the Trash on Alaska’s Shores

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska's Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines.

During part of the GYRE Expedition in June of 2013, a group of educators, scientists, and artists removed 4 tons of debris that had been previously collected by the National Park Service from Hallo Bay in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Because there was no place to dispose of it locally, the debris had to be transported to Seward, a common problem for dealing with debris on remote shorelines. (NOAA)

Our oceans—the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Indian, and Antarctic—are actually all part of one, interconnected body of water. This is one reason Alaska’s 33,904 miles of shoreline, which are frequently secluded and have very few people nearby, can still turn up surprisingly high levels of trash arriving from faraway places.

In order to study and raise awareness about this problem on Alaska’s shorelines, an international group of scientists, artists, and educators, including the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Peter Murphy, recently embarked on the GYRE Expedition. Organized by the Anchorage Museum and Alaska SeaLife Center, this scientific and creative collaboration spent a week in June aboard the research ship Norseman. They traveled around 500 miles down the coast bordering the Gulf of Alaska, making several stops to survey and collect marine debris along the way.

“As we stop at debris aggregation beaches at Gore Point, Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay,” wrote Peter Murphy of the NOAA Marine Debris Program before embarking, “we in the science team will collect data on debris densities and composition while artists collect debris and capture their impressions for works.”

According to the Anchorage Museum website, these marine debris works of art, “on view February through September 2014 at the Anchorage Museum, will tell a global ocean debris story through the work of more than 20 artists from around the world. The 7,500-square-foot exhibition will include a section specific to Alaska featuring the 2013 expedition’s resulting scientific discoveries, as well as art created from the marine debris gathered on Alaska’s beaches during the journey.”

The project is called the GYRE Expedition in reference to the ocean’s massive, swirling, whirlpool-like phenomena known as “gyres,” which tend to gather and move around large amounts of marine debris. These gyres, including the North Pacific Gyre along the Gulf of Alaska, are associated with what are (misleadingly) known as the “garbage patches.”


Here is part of Murphy’s first dispatch of the expedition, posted from Gore Point East Beach, Alaska, on June 8, 2013:

Friday we left Seward, Alaska, for our first stop at Gore Point, a “catcher” beach that extends into the Alaska coastal current and sees some of the highest debris densities recorded in Alaska.  Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) cleaned the beach in 2007–2008 and removed over 20 tons of debris from less than a mile of shoreline. On Saturday, Chris Pallister, the head of GoAK, arranged to be at the beach with some of his crew to show us the site and how it’s changed over the six years that he’s been cleaning it.  From his initial survey, he thought that the debris was significantly less than in 2012. What we saw in logs pushed far up the beach and broken tree branches were evidence of just how strong the weather and ocean forces are that bring debris ashore here. As we spent the day on-site, a small team of us set up our monitoring system, while others collected impressions and debris.

Over the course of the day, we worked together to conduct a full monitoring survey, following the NOAA shoreline protocol to select transects and catalog debris.  This sort of snapshot monitoring data is very helpful in putting numbers to the impressions that people have of a place and the debris they see there—“a lot of foam” can become “___% of debris was foam.”  When you collect data at the same site over time, it can also answer the important question of change, since differences in the composition (what) and the quantity (how much) of debris at a site can give us valuable clues to regional or local changes in the debris picture.  We’re looking forward to doing the analysis, though it’s at least certain to indicate a lot of foam present.

Head over to the NOAA Marine Debris Blog to read more from his journey—including a recap and amazing photos from the trip—with artists, educators, and other scientists to document the trash on Alaska’s beaches and turn it into oceanic inspiration.

You can also watch a video to learn more about the GYRE Expedition at http://www.anchoragemuseum.org/galleries/gyre/.


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NOAA Launches Online Tool for the Marine Debris Community

The NOAA Marine Debris Program, a division of the Office of Response and Restoration, has launched the Marine Debris Clearinghouse, a new online tool for tracking and researching marine debris projects and resources. It’s available at clearinghouse.marinedebris.noaa.gov.

Currently, this database allows users to browse or search records of past, current, and future projects which are funded by the Marine Debris Program and focus on marine debris removal, research, and outreach. One means for discovering this information is its easy-to-use interactive Google map view.

A view of the Marine Debris Clearinghouse map, which allows users to browse its database of projects by region, activity, funding year, and debris type.

A view of the Marine Debris Clearinghouse map, which allows users to browse its database of projects by region, activity, funding year, and debris type.

Courtney Arthur introduces the Marine Debris Clearinghouse on the Marine Debris Blog, where she shares more about plans to expand it with an archive of marine debris studies, reports, and action plans:

The program expects to expand this database to include information from federal partners and the broader marine debris community. In the coming months, the site will grow to include a library of documents, including best practices, regional action plans, technical documents, and papers that reflect the state of knowledge of a given topic area within marine debris study.

She also gives instructions on where to direct feedback about this exciting new resource for combating the problem of trash in our ocean.

Dive in and let us know what you think.

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